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Elmira 1-2-3 Theater Memories and Mold Removal

Updated: Jan 25, 2022

Even though my experience with the Elmira 1-2-3 theater was limited, I loved it. More accurately, I loved the concept of it. Built in 1977, closed in 2002 and torn down in 2007, it was a real scrapper. It hung on, despite being a three-screen theater in a ten-screen town. Although it was part of various chains over the years, it didn't feel cookie cutter. It was truly a hometown theater, with a rich history and a vibe all its own. Below is how I will mainly remember the Elmira 1-2-3. It sat this way for five years, until its 2007 demolition.

Elmira 1-2-3 theater.

The razing of the 1-2-3- began on March 19, 2007. I know the exact date it was torn down, because I kept the following day's newspaper for many years. Alas, when I was in the process of writing this piece, I realized that somewhere along the line it had eluded me. I remembered the headline, so I was able to look it up on the library's microfilm.

Using microfilm for library research.
Time for a haircut, Scruffy.

Unfortunately, the archived photo is in black and white. If I ever find the original newspaper again, I will update the article.

Elmira Star-Gazette Elmira 1-2-3 article March 20, 2007.
Elmira Star-Gazette March 20, 2007 Elmira 1-2-3 Theater.

What is it about a demolished movie house that's so heart-wrenching? The other day, I started looking up photos of the 1-2-3 specifically, and ended up going down a rabbit hole of several extinct local theaters, some of which I'd never heard about prior. (We're talking about places going way back to the early 1900s here. I'll feature those photos later in the article.) To me, there's nothing more depressing than seeing a parking lot, and knowing it once housed a grandiose theater, a place of elegance and culture. My area is sorely lacking in both, so looking at those old pictures was more depressing than educational.

While the Elmira 1-2-3 was admittedly not stunning by any means, a parking lot was indeed its fate. For a long time, I'd entertain the notion of setting up a portable DVD player in said lot, and running a memorial triple feature of Tadpole, Swimfan and City By the Sea, the three last movies to show there. That never happened. It's near one of the worst areas in the city, and I'd probably get killed after dark there (or maybe even at noon), my DVDs and equipment ending up in a swap shop before my corpse had cooled. (I did finally end up buying Swimfan on DVD, though. Although it didn't turn out to be too bad, I wouldn't have had any interest in the film, had it not been one of the 1-2-3's swan songs. It's weird that all three movies had a water theme, just as the theater was going under.)

Whenever I think about demolished cinemas, I'm reminded of Styx's record, Paradise Theatre. It's a great "concept album," making the demolition of a theater symbolic of abandoned dreams and economic depression. To set the mood for the remainder of this piece, here's "State Street Sadie," the last track on the album. It's only a few seconds long, so there's little obligation on your part in clicking. The tune is actually part of the piano score for the 1928 Warner Bros. silent film of the same name. It's a melancholy melody, hearkening back to the days when movies and their theaters were something special.

Hearing this music makes me wish I could have seen the following local beauties back in the day. These palatial structures would still be standing, had they made it to the "historical landmark" era. Like so many ghosts of yesteryear, no one had the foresight that the theaters would be important someday. The following six photos are from the Cinema Treasures website.

Strand Theater, Elmira, NY.
It looks as though the above photo was taken past the Strand's prime. Note the lack of movie posters. The "for rent" sign doesn't bode well, either.

I did get a chance to see the Colonial (below), but it was closed upon our arrival to the area in 1990. The movie house would be torn down in 2000 to build a hockey arena. (Contributing writer Luke Worle saw The Great Mouse Detective and The Care Bears Movie at this theater.)

Colonial Theater, Elmira, NY.

This is how I remember the Colonial:

Colonial Theater, Elmira, NY.
What could be more depressing than an abandoned theater? An abandoned theater advertising NASCAR.

You may be wondering where the "mold removal" in the article's title fits in with all this. (Or, more likely, you totally forgot about it.) Well, I have a row of theater seats in my basement, which I rescued years ago from the demolition of the Elmira 1-2-3.

Here's the Elmira 1-2-3 in 1987, the same year my hearse went into service, and A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors was showing theatrically. Normally, I wouldn't subject my loyal readers to a heavily-watermarked photo, but this one is of specific interest to me: In the window, you can see a Sega Star Trek "Captain's Chair" arcade game. (A reference image is below.) Yeah, I spotted that right off. Sad, or impressive? You be the judge.

Elmira 1-2-3 Theater in 1987.

The white plastic infamously yellows with age, due to its fire-retardant chemical makeup. The yellowing is reversible with a compound known as Retr0brite.

Sega Star Trek Captain's Chair arcade game.
Image courtesy: YouTube.

I used to go to the 1-2-3 in the late '90s, and play on their Neo-Geo arcade cabinet. I went to ninth grade with a guy who worked there, and I advertised for them when I worked as a disc jockey at WINK-106. I may have once applied for a job there; I'm a little fuzzy on that. Sadly, the only movie I actually saw at the Elmira 1-2-3 was Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace. I wish I had a better film experience to associate with the place, but at least it's something.

Those seats that I mentioned have been down in my basement for at least two years, and one of the cushions started to get downright nasty with mold. I wasn't about to let those parasites destroy any more of my property (R.I.P. childhood record player), so I went to town on killing every last bit of it! 

The main component to obliterating mold is sunlight. Thankfully, we've had a great, sunny week here. The cushion sat in the sun for probably six days. I also let it sit out at night, for the airflow. I took some laundry detergent to it, and totally doused it was a bucket of water. (I turned the cushion upside-down to let it drain.) Those spores didn't stand a chance.

Here are photos of the mold meeting its end. Again, this process spanned about a week:

Moldy theater seat.
You're going down!
Cleaning mold from fabric.
Theater seat with mold cleaned off.
Good as... forty years old!

These seats aren't the only things I salvaged from the once-great Elmira 1-2-3: I also have some of the marquee letters from its final films; a grille from the ticket window; a piece of film which evidently got jammed and was snipped from the reel; soda cans from the '70s. While most people would see this stuff as junk, I think of it as history.

I also have an "A," but I felt the need to spell something.

Most important to me are these bricks from the theater itself:

Brick from the Elmira 1-2-3 theater.

While raiding the rubble during the theater's demolition, I also came across its blueprints. However, they were badly weathered and full of holes. I donated these plans to the Chemung County Historical Society in 2011, in the hope that they may live on. I dropped by their archives yesterday, and my wife Adrienne took a panoramic photo of the blueprints. If I had unlimited resources, I would use them to built a replica of the 1-2-3. Preferably in a better neighborhood.

Elmira 1-2-3 theater blueprints.
Demolished Elmira 1-2-3 theater blueprints.
Elmira 1-2-3 theater blueprints.
It'll always be "A/1" in my book! Thank you. I'll be here all week.

On the plus side, another cinema in the area narrowly avoided demolition several years ago. The Heights Theater is by far the classiest way to see a movie around here. It also doesn't hurt that it's half the price of the soulless multiplex at the mall.

Elmira Heights theater, Elmira, NY.

Every summer, the Heights Theater plays classic films from the '80s, for the admission price of $2.00. In 2017, my wife and I saw Beetlejuice and Ghostbusters there. In fact, that showing of Ghostbusters was what inspired me to put together my uniform. Here I am making my debut, with a woefully lacking arsenal. It was really exciting at the time, a dream actually, but I wouldn't show up in public with such a stripped-down uniform these days. Here's the never-before-published photo of this historic event:

Ghostbusters cosplay at a theater.
Even boiled down to its essentials, I still rocked the uniform, and had photo requests. (It's a fake cigarette!)

This photo, taken in April 2018 at Empire State Comic Con by the Albany Times Union, shows how I've upped my game:

Ghostbuster at 2018 Empire State Comic Con.

It's my hope that this generation of movie lovers will grow tired of watching content on their iPhones and tablets, and want to experience films in a theater setting. And maybe not just at the mall, but in a proper movie house, like the Heights Theater.

Drive-in theaters also offer a great cinematic experience. These vestiges of yesteryear average two per state, so this option is far less convenient, but a little road trip only sweetens the deal. There's one near us, but they're owned by a corporation and weren't down with a Retro Injection article.

So, when it comes to putting down your devices in favor of theaters, the rallying cry becomes: "Get off of your phones, and into the rows!" (I just made that up, as I was typing it. You can probably tell.) Unfortunately, pretty much all theaters these days use digital projection. Unless you happen to live in an area with a hard-core vintage movie house, such as Quentin Tarantino's New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles, you'll never again experience the joy of seeing a movie projected on 35mm film. (When I worked at the Arnot Mall's Time-Out arcade, I loved seeing those film canisters being delivered to the Regal Theater.) But in the deliberate act of going to a movie, and watching it without any outside distractions, you keep alive the spirit of cinema.

I'll "usher" out this piece with a shot of those seats from the Elmira 1-2-3. They're now mold-free, and residing in my basement. My friends Luke and Phil helped me lug them into the back of my old station wagon, while the wreckage of the theater was still settling. The seats were soaking wet from snow, and probably doubled the weight of the Buick.

Theater seats from the Elmira 1-2-3 demolished cinema.


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